Senator shows why ‘sober second thought’ matters
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Liberal senator holds the floor for 85 minutes, taking apart Tory anti-union bill clause by clause. Six Conservatives applaud.
Apr 24 2013. By: Carol Goar
Normally a speech in the Senate would attract as much attention as an avalanche in Antarctica. But on April 16, word filtered out that Opposition Leader James Cowan had something important to say.
Economist Armine Yalniznyan, tipped off in advance, listened.
Cowan delivered the kind of speech rarely heard in Parliament these days. It was sweeping in its scope and rich in detail. Having practised law for four decades before his Senate appointment, Cowan knew how to build a case, back it up with credible evidence and use his rhetorical skills to hold the attention of his audience. When he reached the end, six Conservative senators joined their Liberal colleagues in applauding.
The focus of Cowan’s speech was Bill C-377, one of the rare private member’s bills approved by the Commons. It was introduced by Conservative backbencher Russ Hiebert and whisked through all stages of Commons debate in a single year.
It would require unions to make public all expenditures exceeding $5,000 and every paycheque over $100,000. They would also be required to disclose what percentage of their funds they used for lobbying and political activities.
The Liberals hope to hold up the legislation in the Senate long enough that it will die on the order paper.
Cowan began his speech by putting Bill C-377 in context. “It’s part of a larger story, one in which the government of Stephen Harper is trying to systematically silence individuals and organizations that dare to challenge it publicly,” he said.
Then he set out his proof:
Since 2006, the government has systematically cancelled funding to groups that question its priorities; women’s organizations that promote gender equality; the Canadian Council on Learning, which advocates education beginning in early childhood; foreign development agencies that side with impoverished Africans and Asians against western development of their resources, and anti-poverty groups at home.
Next it went after environmental groups, threatening to revoke their charitable status if they delayed pipelines or advocated sustainable development.
Then it muzzled federal scientists, record-keepers and librarians.
Now it has set its sights on organized labour, promising to make unions accountable to their members. But laws already exist to do that, Cowan pointed out. Both the Canada Labour Code and provincial statutes require unions to provide their members with up-to-date financial statements and any other internal document on request at no cost. “The bill is simply not needed.”
After questioning the bill’s rationale, he proceeded analyze it clause-by-clause, showing the consequences of each provision.
He clarified how many people would be caught in its net; not just a handful of union bosses, but tens of thousands of suppliers and contractors — from caterers to computer technicians — who do business with unions. He refuted the Tory contention that the bill would cost taxpayers nothing, pointing out Revenue Canada would have to collate, process, verify and publish much more information than it has ever done, which would require either more employees or large overtime payments. He reminded listeners the bill would impose an onerous administrative burden on unions — especially small locals — pushing aside their members’ needs. It would rip open the privacy of anyone who worked for or provided services to unions and give firms seeking to undercut a union supplier a gold mine of previously confidential information.
“I want to be absolutely sure that we will be voting with our eyes wide open on this private member’s bill,” Cowan concluded, thanking fellow legislators for their patience.
The speech was an oratorical tour de force. To Yalnizyan, it represented “an important moment in our political and parliamentary history.” She emailed the text to all her contacts and asked them to circulate it widely. It has now spread through the women’s movement, the academic community, the anti-poverty network and social media.
It is unlikely Bill C-377 will go down in the Senate. The Conservatives hold 63 of its 105 seats. But it will be debated thoroughly and it may be amended extensively. All the while, the clock will be ticking down to an election.
Cowan knew one senator couldn’t turn the tide. But for 85 minutes on a Tuesday afternoon, he made the “chamber of sober second thought” matter.
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